Oral Answers to Questions — Industrial Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th July 1972.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 25th July 1972

We are accustomed in the House to the Government not replying adequately to debates, but we have seldom listened to speeches as blatant as those we have heard this afternoon from the Prime Minister and some of his hon. Friends, in which they have tried to pretend that the debate is about something different. They are not entitled to label us as being people who are not in favour of respect for the law. The Prime Minister has heard the views of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and many of my hon. Friends on this subject, speaking in the House, in the country and through the broadcasting media over many months. The Prime Minister heard the speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition this afternoon in which he reiterated his conviction that the law, however bad it was, should be respected. The Prime Minister was interrupted several times by my right hon. Friend, by myself and by others in an attempt to put him right, but he ploughed on with a long speech in a short debate in which he completely dodged the issues in front of the House by talking about something which was not the issue we are debating.

The subject before the House is the chaotic industrial situation created by the Government's folly and pigheaded persistence in keeping the Act on the Statute Book. We were entitled to hear from the Prime Minister an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crisis and ideas on the policies that the Government would pursue to deal with it.

The subject we are discussing is the critical situation of employment in the docks which has been getting worse for many years. Over one-third of the jobs have been lost in seven years. That is against a background of heavy general unemployment and heavy unemployment in dockland areas. We have been on the verge of a national dock strike since May. A national dock strike has twice been called and postponed by the National Dock Delegate Conference. This week the Jones-Aldington Committee has presented what might well be the beginnings of a solution to these problems. It is only the beginnings because the committee has produced an interim report and is due to go on to further studies. The interim report is bold and imaginative. It is made by a committee representing not only employers and trade unions but having as members two working dockers, and it provides a solution upon which both sides might have agreed to call off any industrial action so that a peaceful settlement could have emerged.

At the eleventh hour this artificial crisis arises out of an argument about one cold store in the East End of London. I ask the House to reflect upon how ridiculous it is that the nation's docks should be brought to a standstill—and perhaps other industries as well—over one local argument, however serious, that should never have reached this pitch.

The remarks which I made on Friday have been quoted at length by hon. Members opposite. I wish they had quoted all my remarks, including the passages in which I criticised the Government. I stand by what I said. I believe that the shop stewards were wrong to pursue the action they did, and I believe that not only as a law-abiding citizen but as a trade unionist.

The constitutional authority here is the National Dock Delegate Conference, which called off the strike action so that its representatives should be able to talk within the framework of the Jones/Aldington Committee, and that was right. Every decision of the National Dock Delegate Conference was reported to mass meetings of dockers in the dockland areas. That is the way to proceed. I make this practical point with which my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) may not agree. All trade unionists might learn a lesson from the recent railway men's dispute. The railway men obeyed the law, carried out the orders of the court, won their fight, got a good settlement and made the Government look ridiculous. That is how we should fight these battles. We should fight to win.

A point that is not often mentioned in these debates is the responsibility of the employers. People attack the actions of the pickets. I equally attack the foolish, irresponsible action of Midland Cold Storage in taking this case to the court. I do not know who was supposed to be helped—certainly not Midland Cold Storage, which has not benefited from what has happened since. There will always be in British industry trade unionists or employers, or both, who behave in a way which we might think to be unreasonable, but what is wrong is that they are presented with a scenario in which the situation can escalate into a national crisis. Therefore, the main culprits are the Government and this divisive, unfair and unreasonable Act which they have put and kept on the Statute Book, despite the evidence of recent events that it is a national disaster. The events of the last few months are all events that the Government were warned about by the Opposition and by many other people when they were bringing forward the legislation.

The Prime Minister was complacent this afternoon in speaking of the relatively small number of workers who are on strike. I hope the number will remain small and that this dispute will be settled. I agree with the decision made yesterday by the TUC not to call a general strike, but if things go on as they are going the Government cannot expect their luck to hold. There is bound to be a much bigger reaction, resulting in large numbers of people on strike, and large numbers of other workers being laid off because of the strike, with consequent great hardship to the people and great loss to our economy.

The Prime Minister has given us no idea of any constructive approach to the problem. In the absence of that, I put on record my profound hope that two things will work out. First, I hope that the Official Solicitor will find a way to do what, apparently, he proposes to do and appeal to the court for a procedure which will get these men out of gaol. If this happens, as I hope it will, the Government must remember that they will have been saved by a stroke of luck to which they have contributed nothing and which they do not deserve.

The other development I hope for is that the Jones-Aldington proposals will be accepted by both sides. I emphasise "by both sides". There are militants among dock employers as well as among dock trade unionists, and many of the militant dock employers are angry about the proposals. Both sides need to discuss the proposals with great urgency and to discuss them constructively, remembering their responsibility to everyone in the community. If—and it is a big "if"—the country is saved from this crisis by these developments, as I hope, without being over-optimistic, will be the case, at the end of the week the Government will still have to recognise that as long as the Act remains on the Statute Book crises of this sort will occur over and over again.

I take up the Prime Minister on one point. He laid great stress upon respect for the law and pretended that the Government benches were defending the law whereas the Opposition were attacking it. That is the precise opposite of the truth. The Government have put on the Statute Book an Act which millions of people regard as stupid, offensive, divisive and unfair and their opinion of the Act will lead some of those people to break the law. I do not defend their breaking the law; I am merely saying that it will happen. When it happens the overall respect of this country for the law as a whole will be lessened. The Government are the wreckers; they are the people who are bringing the law of the country into disrepute.

The Government's pride is the least important element. If I were giving advice as a friend to the Government, I would say that they would appear to be bigger men in the country if they would acknowledge their mistake. Everyone else knows that it is a mistake. They will appear as bigger men if they acknowledge their mistake by either repealing or suspending the Act. At the very least, they should introduce the two amendments to which my right hon. Friend referred earlier, so that it is no longer possible for an individual employer or any other individual to escalate a local dispute into a national crisis in the way we have seen. If the Government do not take these steps, we shall be in deeper and deeper trouble and the whole fabric of our society will as a result be irreparably damaged.